The library in my hometown was a grand Georgian building with an archway for coaches to pass through and stabling in the yard for the horses of yesteryear to rest. It had huge wooden doors with frosted glass and brass handles, shining parquet floors, panelled walls, an elegant staircase with twisting balustrades, rooms that flowed from one to another in labyrinthine quirkiness and it was presided over by two Quaker spinsters whose kind, firm oversight blessed my childhood visits.
In the children’s section, there was one book that was not for loan. It rested on a polished, adzed oak table with a chubby Thompson’s mouse keeping guard from one plank end leg, was covered in gold tooled leather, had a printed bookplate on the frontispiece showing mermaids vainly preening seaweed hair with the aid of shell combs and a rock pool mirror, and fragile tissue inserts to protect the glossy coloured plates that intersected the gilt edged pages. There were days for curling in the window-seat that overlooked the market place and losing oneself in Milly Molly Mandy, The Chalet School girls or The House In The Big Woods, but for special, I’m-out-of-sorts days, I-need –to-re-charge days and I-hope-no-one-finds-me days, kneeling on a chair to reach the book on the big table was the only thing that satisfied. It was ‘English Fairy Tales’ by Flora Annie Steel. I adored reading of George, born with a golden garter on his left leg that marked him out for doughty deeds, Kalyb the enchantress, King Ptolemy, Caporushes and those wise men of Gotham who did the silliest things, but it was the sinuous pen lines of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations that most absorbed my senses, pulling me into forests filled with looming, dark trees with grasping roots that threatened to curl from the page, backgrounds packed with swirling nuggets of hidden images, animated woodland creatures, fairy maidens with flowing, pastel capes and trolls ugly enough to repulse, but with enough good nature not to frighten. I would gently trace a finger along the lines, following the endless intersections to muted watercolour pools, enchanted and calmed by the exquisite wonder of it all.
Each colour plate marked the end of a story. The Fee-fi-fo-fum giant who had to stoop his fur hunter hatted head to fit into the room, his necklace made of the bones of Englishmen swinging out from his body, had lost his power to scare by the time he was seen; already felled by the words on the page. Galligantua and the wicked magician’s spells had been thwarted and Cormoran no longer terrorised the tiny village dwellers who peeped nervously from locked houses. The glossed papers brought a completion and though the pictures would have me believe differently, the business of that chapter had drawn to a close.
I loved the gentle crackle of the page turning; the sturdy weight of the illustrated insert caught up with a static of delicate tissue; the ritual smoothing of the whisper thin protection so that it did not get damaged in metamorphosis. The tale left behind must be kept safe with integrity as a part of the whole beautiful work.
The back of the plate was white. No marks or words. Nothing to identify what was behind or what was still to come. I would place my left hand on the silky smoothness and stroke the pause; the unadorned moments of transition; the quiet lacuna before the next adventure began.
*First published in 2016, but still that precious pause as one year slows to a halt and another gently begins resonates.